TRUE ROMANCE (1993)
In Detroit, a lonely pop culture geek marries a call girl, steals cocaine from her pimp, and tries to sell it in Hollywood...
Sandwiched between Quentin Tarantino’s breakthrough Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) establishing him as the hottest filmmaker of the 1990s, Tony Scott made True Romance based on a screenplay Tarantino sold for $40,000 after losing interest in the material. Now considered one of the finest movies of its time, it just goes to show what a creative dynamo Tarantino was in the early-’90s when one of his cast-offs developed such a reputation.
Tarantino is often criticised that his characters are merely reflections of himself, which has become less the case in recent times, but still resurfaces occasionally in how the taste and opinions of the two leads in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood (2019) match his own. That was never more true than in his early screenplay for True Romance, as Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) is undoubtedly a fantasy of himself—a sexy cinephile with a penchant for kung fu films and an obsession with Elvis Presley, who works in a Detroit comic-book store. Clarence is introduced trying to woo a beautiful woman at a bar, but his patters falls flat once it becomes clear she has zero interest in going to see a Sonny Chiba triple-bill with him.
Luckily, Clarence soon meets a free-spirited woman called Alabama (Patricia Arquette) at the cinema, after she spills popcorn all over him, and together they enjoy an evening of food, fun, and sex back at his apartment. He’s not even angry when Alabama reveals she’s actually a call girl his friend hired as a birthday treat for him, as their connection is genuine and they soon marry. Things take a left turn once Clarence has to deal with his new wife’s pimp, Drexl (Gary Oldman), resulting in a deadly confrontation in a brothel and the accidental theft of a suitcase full of cocaine worth $500,000. This results in the Mob getting involved, forcing Clarence and Alabama on the run as they try to sell the coke in order to finance their ‘happily ever after’…
True Romance tells a simple story, which is partly its strength, as it allows you to focus on the character relationships and not get distracted by a needlessly complicated plot. Tarantino uses this basic framework of a story to hang several entertaining scenes, including a now iconic confrontation between Don Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken) and Clarence’s cop father Clifford (Dennis Hopper). It was an early example of how good Tarantino is at subverting a scene we’ve seen a thousand times before (the mob interrogation of someone facing harm is he doesn’t squeal). He makes it feel fresh and edgy, with Clifford getting under the Don’s skin with a race-baiting lecture about the negro bloodline of Sicilians. It’s not a particularly showy scene in terms of how it’s constructed by director Tony Scott, but simply allows Tarantino’s dialogue to shine in the hands of screen legends like Walken and Hopper. Indeed, while Walken got to chew on a similarly memorable scene for Tarantino himself in Pulp Fiction the following year, it’s a shame Hopper didn’t appear in a Tarantino movie before his death in 2010.
Tony Scott directs True Romance with efficiency and flair, although it’s not a story that required him to put all of his energy into making it visually dazzling. The script and performances are the real stars here and Scott keeps out of their way, although he does find moments to have fun with the camera and editing style, like having a particularly talky scene take place on a speeding rollercoaster. The violence and shoot-outs also contain some of Scott’s signature look, but there’s simply no denying it’s a handsomely-made movie that doesn’t rely on technical pizazz to make its point. It’s interesting that Tarantino wasn’t interested in making True Romance at the time, perhaps because he found the story a little basic when compared to his more ingeniously plotted Pulp Fiction.
Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette don’t actually leave the biggest impression of the ensemble cast (as there are too many bigger name actors chewing the scenery in smaller parts), but both are charismatic and charming together. The early part of True Romance has to makes us swallow their ‘love at first sight’ romance, which is definitely a nerd’s fantasy Tarantino was putting onto the page, but it works incredibly well. It’s also interesting that that first act is effectively repurposed material from Tarantino’s partially-lost amateur film My Best Friend’s Birthday (1987). And perhaps Arquette sells Tarantino’s fantasy girlfriend role so well because, a few years later, she’d marry a comic-book loving Elvis fanatic in real life: Nicolas Cage.
Slater has the more developed role as Clarence (who’s more instrumental in pushing the narrative along, and we get to meet his father and best-friend), while Alabama’s more underdeveloped because she’s little more than a quirky fantasy figure and remains that way till the end. That said, Alabama proves herself physically capable when facing scary hitman Virgil (James Gandolfini) in her hotel room, alone, so she at least avoids being a damsel-in-distress. And it’s almost her story, in the sense Alabama’s the one narrating her experience throughout, inspired by Sissy Spacek’s voiceover from Badlands (1973).
Overall, True Romance remains a vivid live-action take on the romance comics it was inspired by. It would’ve been interesting to see what Tarantino would have done with his own material, but knowing it was Scott’s idea to give it a happy ending means the right choice was made. (And Tarantino conceded his downbeat ending wasn’t the right way to go after seeing it). It’s also become a beautiful time capsule of its era, with youthful up-and-comers like Brad Pitt and Gary Oldman in small roles. Samuel L. Jackson even pops up for one scene, and it’s great fun spotting character actors like Chris Penn, Tom Sizemore, Kevin Corrigan, Saul Rubinek… and yes that’s Val Kilmer as “Elvis” in a mirror.
True Romance barely made its $12.5M budget back at the box office in 1993, and was overshadowed by Pulp Fiction in the public consciousness once Tarantino became a major Hollywood player the following year, but it’s only grown in stature as a fun and quotable romantic crime drama. And even Tarantino says the famous ‘Sicilian Scene’ is one of the best he’s written (only topped in his mind by another interrogation scene in Inglourious Basterds), so it’s worth seeing just for that acting masterclass.
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USA • FRANCE | 1993 | 118 MINUTES (THEATRICAL) • 121 MINUTES (DIRECTOR’S CUT) | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • ITALIAN
Originally shot on 35mm film, Arrow Video have again scanned the camera negatives to create a 4K digital intermediate. I haven’t experience the movie on home video before, so can’t in all honesty compare this to previous releases, but the picture quality here is a beautiful representation of what you’d expect from an early-’90s celluloid. The colours are rich, skin tones are great, and while it’s not exactly going to make your jaw drop at any point… True Romance looks truly beguiling on 4K Ultra HD in both cuts of the film. (This review was based on the slightly longer Director’s Cut.)
Less impressive is the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound mix, which doesn’t offer a great deal in terms of rear channel action or immersion. An uncompressed stereo mix is also available on the disc, and it seems like the later DTS 5.1 audio didn’t add a whole lot to what’s a very front-heavy movie focused on dialogue. It won’t ruin your experience, but it’s a shame a few of the noisier sequences (like the handful of shootouts) don’t spit a few gunshots and ricochets around your living room.
director: Tony Scott.
writers: Quentin Tarantino.
starring: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt & Christopher Walken.